A colorful assembly of kids fanned out across the Enger Park Golf Course driving range and behind it in the practice area, whacking shots off mats and lofting range balls toward pins.
Across the road on the practice green near the Enger clubhouse, one of the Duluth Junior Golf School teachers, Taylor Kragseth, addressed his group of students one recent sunny Tuesday morning.
“We’re gonna talk about golf etiquette today,” he told a semicircle of girls and boys. “Anybody know what that is?”
“It’s doing what you’re supposed to do,” piped up a girl in a tie-dyed tee shirt and shorts. Kragseth said she was right, then told the kids about not walking in the line of a putt, and remaining silent while somebody else is hitting a shot. He pointed at an un-repaired divot on the putting surface, and said “let’s treat the greens with some respect.”
Although some people maintain that golf is losing its popularity in Duluth and that the city should close or shrink Lester Park Golf Course, attendance is up this year at the Duluth Junior Golf School. This year, 42 children signed up for the program at Lester Park and 61 enrolled at Enger for a total of 103 participants (about two-thirds are boys and one-third girls). Last season 99 young golfers attended the golf school.
At each Duluth public course there are five teaching sessions that run through July 17 (with a week off during the July 4 week). Enrollment costs $110 and includes snacks, beverages and prizes. The fee drops to $85 for additional junior golfers in the same family. The school is open to children between 5 and 15 years old.
Kyle Peterson, 11, enrolled in the program at Lester Park last summer because a friend of his had really enjoyed the experience, said his mom, Sara. She said her son also participates in a junior golf program at Ridgeview Country Club.
“At Lester they do a nice robust lesson and then they offer the kids an opportunity to play at a reduced rate,” Sara Peterson said. “There’s a young man going into the 10th grade at East High School who went out and played with my son and his buddy. I think that’s the culture out there. I feel comfortable having Kyle at Lester Park with his friends.” Why does her son enjoy it so much?
“I think he loves to be outside,” Mrs. Peterson replied. “He likes to be busy. He likes things to be scheduled. In the summers he gets a fair amount of free time. I think he’s really learning the basics of golf. I played with him since he started the lessons, and he can get around the golf course very well. I love that he’s learning a sport he can play his whole life.”
She said she didn’t have an opinion on whether the city should close all or part of Lester Park Golf Course. “Obviously there are financial considerations.” She said she’d be sad if the junior program at Lester Park was scrapped, but she was unable to balance that with the financial aspects of the city operating two public courses.
“We just really love it,” Peterson said of the junior golf program. “It’s something that’s available for our kids, so they can be outside and just be kids.”
Mike Bender is the general manager of Enger Park and Lester Park golf courses, which are operated under a city contract by Billy Casper Golf. BCG is one of the largest privately owned golf course management companies in the U.S., with nearly 150 properties in 29 states.
Bender heads up both the junior programs at Enger and Lester. His seven helpers include six employees of the two courses and his son, Nate, a high school student. A golf pro at courses in Ridgefield, Wash., Belle Plaine, Minn. and in Bloomington, Minn. before moving to Duluth, Bender said he learned the game when he was given access to a golf course as an 18-year-old junior hockey player. As a teacher, he stresses three fundamentals: posture, grip and alignment. The hardest part of the game for a youngster, he said, was “walking nine holes.”
“Juniors in Duluth have so much opportunity,” Bender said, “and in a way more than in Arizona or Washington, where green fees are higher and demand to play all year round is stronger. Golf courses in Minnesota do a much better job promoting the game and keeping it welcome to all compared to the other two states I have been a part of.”
Judging from the happy faces and diligent attitude of the 100 or so kids learning golf this summer, they feel more than welcome at Duluth’s two public courses.